Reflections on Obtaining a Smart Phone

So I’ve finally obtained a smart phone of my own, complete with unlimited 4G access (I was due for an upgrade, so it was thankfully affordable). This gadget is a news junkie’s dream: I now have instantaneous access to all the events of the world at all times. I can look up anything and everything whenever a random thought or question comes into my mind. I have a constant stream of knowledge available wherever I go.

Of course, like most innovations, this one is a double-edged sword. It’s nice to have all this information literally in the palm of my hand. But will my often distracting obsession with data and news be made worse by this newfound capacity to expand on it? Sure, I don’t plan on playing any of the games that often distract many of my peers: all my apps are strictly functional (so far). But a distraction is a distraction…how intrusive will this remarkable device be?

I suppose this will offer a wonderful opportunity to test my willpower – or to learn by experience just how difficult it is for the human mind to adjust in this era of constant stimulus. I already know the feeling of data overload firsthand, as I’m sure most of us well-connected youth do. Have I just upped the ante here? I’ll see with time, but for now I’m thoroughly enjoying having so much to read and learn whenever I’m stuck waiting somewhere. For better or for worse, boredom is a thing of the past (though I’ve always carried reading material with me wherever I go, so keeping myself entertained has never been an issue; now I get to save on space).

Another profound thought struck me as I started reaping the benefits of my new toy: that in the palm of my hand, in this lightweight and sleek machine, lies access to almost the entire sum of human knowledge. Anything and everything I could ever want to know – from the mundane, to the profound, from the practical to the philosophical – was available to me almost instantaneously with a few strokes of my fingers. Not a single reportable event in the world can go unnoticed. No conceivable question could go unaddressed. All of that lies within something smaller than my hand, which I can take with me anywhere I wanted.

For most of our history, the majority of our species couldn’t even read or write, let alone have access to the world’s knowledge. We barely knew what went on beyond our little villages. Suddenly, a growing number of us are connected to this immaterial repository of human knowledge known as the internet, and now, if we so choose, we can delve into the near-totality of collected human knowledge.

As I mentioned before, there is certainly a catch as far as the social and psychological effects of all that data – the human mind was never meant to absorb so much information so regularly. We’ll probably come to adapt to it as we have to so many other developments, but it may be a difficult process nonetheless. Who knows? Whatever the caveats, we shouldn’t underestimate how marvelous it is to live in a time when knowledge is no longer (entirely) the domain of the rich and powerful. The accessibility and affordability of these things is getting better with time. Whatever the impact, it’s sure to be weighty.

 

Are Fears of Information Overload Overblown?

Nowadays, it seems that the only thing more ubiquitous than information is the subsequent anxiety about whether the human mind can handle it all. From casual conversations to numerous scholarly articles, debate on the subject is hard to miss. I’ve discussed myself before, reaching an ambivalent conclusion (as I’m wont to do – it’s a bad habit, I know).

Unsurprisingly, I’m not alone in this experience, as BBC columnist ____ shared similar reflections about whether all this concern is merited. He begins by putting some well-needed historical perspective:

A 1971 essay in The Futurist magazine opened with some alarming numbers. The average city, it said, now had six television channels. But, the author warned, there was already one city planning 42 channels and in the future, there could even be places that support 80, 100 or 200 channels. Where will it end, the essay asked.

Just four decades on, in a world of instant-on, hyper-connected reality, the numbers sounds almost laughable. But, it seems, every generation believes that it has reached information overload. Look back through history, and whether it was the arrival of the book or the arrival of the internet, everyone from scholarly monks to rambunctious politicians are willing to pronounce that we can take no more; humanity has reached its capacity. Television, radio, apps, e-books, the internet – it is causing so much anxiety and stress in our lives that we no longer have control. The machines have won.

Or have they?

Every generation invariably fears the changes that emerge within its lifetime, and why not? Change is scary and, by definition, unfamiliar. We don’t know what to expect, even while it transpires before us, so we start debating the implications, the unseen effects, and the long-term consequences.

People once thought that novels would corrupt the minds of the youth or distract them from reality (sound familiar?), or that writing in place of oral traditions would cause a decline in memory. And as the 1970s reference to The Futurist showed, we’ve fretted about technology overloading our minds since before it was even fully utilized. The entire issue was arguably begun, or at least accelerated, by own man in particular:

If we want to understand the modern way we think about so-called “information overload” the best place to start is the 1970 book Future Shock by author and futurist Alvin Toffler. In it, he said future shock is, “the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future. It may well be the most important disease of tomorrow”.

There is no denying Toffler’s international influence on the way we think about the future. I have seen Future Shock in virtually every used bookstore I have visited from Portland, Oregon to Cartagena, Colombia. With over six million copies sold, it clearly struck a nerve in 1970 and beyond.

Toffler explained in his book that, “just as the body cracks under the strain of environmental overstimulation, the “mind” and its decision processes behave erratically when overloaded.

In a radio interview shortly after the release of his book, Toffler warned that the exhaustion he saw throughout the world was tied to his new future shock theory. “I think there’s a tremendous undercurrent of dissatisfaction in America; people saying I want out, it’s moving too fast, it’s moving away from me; a sense of panic; a sense that things are slipping out of control and I don’t think that there’s much we can do in our personal lives to counteract that,” he said.

Toffler’s assumption was that the future is something that happens to us, rather than with us. It is something out of our control that will inevitably overwhelm us.

Toffler’s statements are almost word-for-word what we hear and read today: the world’s moving too quickly for us to adjust; we’re coming under the mercy of technology forces that we barely understand, let alone control; and all this subsequent anxiety from modernity is making us more depressed, worried, and cynical.

So the psychological strain we’re enduring is just the latter stage of a decades-long process, brought about by a “future” that we didn’t anticipate coming so quickly, and thus couldn’t prepare for. Even the most radical developments – be they technological or otherwise – take generations before their effects are truly felt or learned about.

Whilst some will take comfort in Toffler’s words, some of the notions seem rather quaint forty years later. Just as people today throw around the number of tweets sent per second or the amount of video watched online, in the early 1970s Toffler followers and techno-reactionaries liked to scatter their own figures to show the magnitude of the problem.

In the same Futurist essay that decried the rise of the number of TV channels, the author Ben Bagdikian goes on to overwhelm readers with even more daunting numbers, explaining that computers will soon be able to store information at a rate of 12 million words a minute, whilst printers will be able to pump out 180,000 words a minute; something that will collide violently with humanity’s ability to process information, he said.

“The disparity between the capacity of machines and the capacity of the human nervous system is not a small matter in the future of communications,” he wrote. “It has individual and social consequences that are already causing us problems, and will cause even more in the future.

“The human being of the near future probably will need as much sleep as he does today. He will spend more time absorbing abstract information than he does today, continuing the trend of past generations. But there is a limit.

It is a warning that we still hear today in many contexts. For example, author Jonathan Franzen, an opponent of electronic books, argues that traditional paper tomes give humanity some much needed stability in a world rocked by change. He fears that this rapid pace is hurting us. “Seriously, the world is changing so quickly that if you had any more than 80 years of change I don’t see how you could stand it psychologically,” he said.

Are we really any more stressed out or overwhelmed in the present day then we’ve been in the past? Hasn’t every society of every generation had something to fret about? I’m curious at what point had the world experienced changes that didn’t cause some sort of disruption to the status quo (as changes, by their nature, invariably do). Either we deal with the scary and disorderly unknowns of change, or we wallow in the familiar misery of stagnation.

To be fair, I don’t think Franzen, Bagdikian, or their contemporaries are opposed to change in principle. Their argument seems to be that a certain kind of change, and/or a certain speed of change, is what is unfavorable. That may be a fair point, but what exactly is the solution? Changes of any sort are rarely organized, deliberate affairs – they come about from a random assortment of various dynamics and circumstances. Even people that invent new things or come up with new ideas don’t always the intent, or the means, to see them through, nor can they ever really anticipate what may come of their creation.

In the end, all any of us can do is adapt. Human society will always be too complex, diverse, and disorderly to predict its development or chart an organized course through future obstacles. ____ seems to agree:

Yet history seems to suggest we ride these waves of change. I am typing this on a 15-hour flight over the Pacific Ocean. In that time, I watched two movies, three TV episodes and read half of a (deadtree) book. No one was forcing me to consume this media, nor even write these words. I made a conscious choice that this is how I wished to spend my time. I would also argue that most people reading an essay about the concept of information overload on the internet have some choice in the matter.

Toffler, Bagidikian and Franzen are not necessarily wrong or even alarmist in their concerns that we should seek to control our own technological destinies. But futility should not win the argument. Your consumption of media is largely within your control. We have a choice in the matter. We can change the channel, turn off the TV, or close the laptop lid. These are our choices, and it is hard to see how any of them are irrational or happening to us rather than with us.

Victor Cohn, in his 1956 book, 1999: Our Hopeful Future might have put it most reasonably. Cohn was a pragmatist and understood that we could not run from the future, but that by embracing change we might do some good: “Reject change, and we will be enslaved by it. Others will accept the worst of it and dictate to us. Accept change, and we may control it.”

Sooner or later, the future catches up with us all. But it need not swallow us whole.

That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t keep debating this issue. The naysayers or alarmists raise decent points that deserve serious consideration. We must never shut out well-founded concerns.

It could very well be that we’ll eventually reach a point in our technological development where we’re negatively altered by the forces we unknowingly unleashed. As I said, change is unpredictable and nebulous, so who’s to say that such alterations to our social, political, and economic fabric can’t morph into something we’ll be unable to adapt to.

Personally, I’m an optimist in this regard. I think every development will have its pros and cons. No element of human progress has ever been devoid of caveats. But given that this will always be the case, it seems that the best – if not only – thing we can do is try to understand the forces at work and adjust ad hoc. It’s not a graceful or sophisticated approach, but such is the nature of human beings. We’re constrained by our cognitive limitations, and can only see so much of the bigger picture for so long. Improvements in technology and methodology are helping us, but they can only get us so far – unless some unanticipated radical change fixes that too!

What are your thoughts?

The Information Age

A philosopher is a lover of wisdom, not of knowledge, which for all its great uses ultimately suffers from the crippling effect of ephemerality. All knowledge is transiently linked to the world around it and subject to change as the world changes, whereas wisdom, true wisdom, is eternally immutable. To be philosophical one must love wisdom for its own sake, accept its permanent validity and yet its perpetual irrelevance. It is the fate of the wise to understand the process of history and yet never to shape it.

-Shashi Tharoor, former UN Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information

Unknown to many of us, the era we live in is known as the Information age, and it began only 29 years ago. As it denotes, this is a period characterized by the sheer force and propagation of knowledge and we’re living only in its infancy, many of us having grown up with

We live in a world of unparalleled knowledge and research, where every day –  if not every hour at times – some knew discovery is made or a new project is being undertaken. More unprecedented, however, is the great diffusion of knowledge: for the first time in history, nearly all the sum of the world’s knowledge thus far is out there and available for many to absorb. The internet undoubtedly bears a huge responsibility for this, with its invention being the marker with which the information age began (in fact that was the original idea of the Worldwide Web as proposed by Sir Thomas Berners Lee, its inventor, in the 1990s). Suddenly, we can type anything that comes to mind in a myriad of search and info sites and get a list (if not pages) of information, as well as reference points. More books are published every day and more periodicals and journals are established every few months. Heck, speaking by experience, 5 years ago, when I first started majoring in International Relations and Political Science, there were only about  3 major magazines on the subject: now I’ve seen about 12 at my local Barns and Nobles (much to my dismay, I can only afford to subscribe to so many :P). Universities and libraries are popping up everywhere, especially in many rising nations and now even cell phones and MP3 players can access repositories of knowledge.

Most important of all, the unprecedented link that we’ve established—our capacity to communicate with one another across borders and vast distances—has bred an exchange of ideas and knowledge that was scarcely imagined at any point in human history. This constant trade of knowledge has become a global market place where theories, political ideas, philosophies, cures, recipes, health diets, lifestyles, religion, and everything we can humanly process is just flowing all around us, often stacking with one another and breeding even newer concepts that are further passed along. We’ve created a melting pot of information that more and more of the world (as communications technology spreads) is both adding to and taking a piece of. The formation of multination corporations, international research teams, inter-university partnerships, and more globalized media are the symptoms of a world increasingly more connected in its pursuit—and its access to-knowledge.  Some even speak of this knowledge bringing down oppression and dictatorships, as more people (especially the Chinese, a good case-study of this) become exposed to ideas that, try as they might, their repressive governments cannot totally stifle in a world of quickly developing and improving communications. Revolutions can be guided by mass knowledge of injustice and fueled by ideas like liberty than by sheer angst and poverty (where were the original catalyst historically).

Granted, with all those ‘positive’ ingredients come the toxic ones, the ones that breed war, international terrorist networks, and nationalism. Evil forces use this free flow to propagate their own agenda, to recruit people into their nefarious schemes and even exploit them. Regimes censor and control the media in their nations, and however difficult their task, often succeed (though this is debated, especially in its permanence). Hated, fear, and angst can flow as freely as their positive counterparts, and can often be just as tempting. In a more technical sense, hackers and other digital dissidents can infiltrate this system and corrupt and destroy it, exploiting our increasing dependence on communications technology to transmit everything from billions of dollars to pornography.

We don’t realize it, but in such a world as described, anyone of us has the potential to be a scholar and intellectual, to know whatever we want should we choose to open our minds to it. So many of us ‘average’ people make intellectual quips, judge human nature, and question existence and the metaphysical, when such musings were, for the bulk of human history, reserved for a negligible percentage of the world’s population. While ignorance and stupidity, of course, remain, as they always will, they are nowhere near the levels they once were, especially as every generation becomes wiser and more informed than the preceding. Who knows what are children and grandchildren will know in their lifetimes?

To think that for much of human history, knowledge and even literacy for that matter, was the domain of a paltry few elites and aristocrats. Now it has become the domain of the common man and woman, conspiracy theories notwithstanding. Universities have become less for the privileged and more for the average person. Public universities, such as my own FIU, have boomed in both their influence and their admissions. The gap between high-culture and low-culture have been closing in fast, as everyone from skinheads to sports junkies embrace art and human activism, while WASPS and old-money elites enjoy video games and reality television. With this free flow of data comes the exposure to different outlooks and interests never before known and the elimination of subcultures and, to some extent, class (after all, class divisions are as much dependent upon knowledge and educational attainment as they are to money and power).

Knowledge has become so widespread and available that we scarcely see it as anything special. Education and data have been taken for granted by their sheer availability and widespread acceptance as a human given.  We mustn’t squander these opportunities people! Indeed, many of us aren’t, as our ambitions have risen with our knowledge: more and more people want to ‘save the world’ and do their part. Causes against poverty and injustice become a given to nearly all college students, at least nominally. With knowledge comes the desire to apply that knowledge and the understanding of the problems and conditions of the world that must be addressed.

We are approaching, if not having already arrived, at the precipice of human history. The world is dying and on the verge of collapse in the face of environmental degradation, over consumption, international discord, and our usual petty conflicts. Never have we come so close to destruction (although that’s debatable) and never have we had the means, the information, to do something about it.

All this knowledge can be overwhelming and disparaging though. Nothing is ever true for long it seems, and there is always a new study or discovery that disproves something we’d just learned about, or worst still, always thought we knew was true. Age-old conventions we grew up with and lived by are broken and doubted. Everything becomes so impermanent or ambiguous and nothing seems to have a clear cut answer any more (and if it does, it gets challenged or disproven at some point). This making solving are all individual and national problems, if not the myriad global problems we face as a whole, all the more daunting and seemingly impossible. We can’t find a consensus to deal with this economic crisis, with terrorism, with global warming (which some people can’t accept the existence of), with poverty, with finding love, with healthcare…and so on and so forth. We even start to question existence itself and God and the human condition. And being bombarded with all this knowledge everywhere we go doesn’t help: we feel overwhelmed, unable to take it all in, or to make up our minds. The free flow of knowledge becomes chaotic and more reminiscent of a storm. Ironically we face the increasingly cliché notion that the more we know, the more we realize we don’t know, and suddenly we feel lost and unsure in a world we don’t really seem to understand anymore.

We think the world is more violent and troubled than it really is, if only because we know what is going on everywhere all the time. We’re exposed to so many images and reports of war, human rights abuses, violence, rape, disaster, and death that we feel it’s all coming to an end, when we’re actually LESS violent and worse off than every before. Its not that the world is worse than ever, but merely that we’re more informed than ever.

All of this confusion can breed nihilism and a sense of despair and powerlessness, as we are too uncertain—or too exposed to negative ideas that also flow around us—to act. We start asking what’s the point, why bother knowing? Why live in truth and knowledge when ignorance is bliss and that bliss is really all that should matter? Why believe in this when there is that? Why trust or believe in anything anymore, period? Paradoxically, it is through asking questions that we get answers, and yet is through getting answers that we ask questions.

Ah, who knows! Just keep your minds open, however daunting that may be. I don’t really know what else to say but that.